Songs from the ashes

26 August 2020

In a year that has seen Australia ricochet from devastating bush-fires to pandemic lockdown, local musician Rachael Dease is capturing the mood of the moment in a new album titled, “Hymns for End Times”. Nina Levy caught up with Dease to learn more.

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If you follow Perth’s local performing arts scene, there’s a good chance you’ve come across the work of critically acclaimed composer, sound designer and vocalist Rachael Dease.

A prolific artist working across multiple disciplines, Dease’s often haunting compositions and sound designs include The Last Great Hunt’s It’s Dark Outside, WA Youth Theatre Company’s Rest, Barking Gecko Theatre Company’s Ghost in my Suitcase and Black Swan State Theatre Company’s You Know We Belong Together, just to name a handful. And that’s only one element of her creative practice, which also comprises art music (including the multi-award winning song cycle City of Shadows), sound installations and song writing.

Rachael Dease. Photo: Joe Kapiteyn

I first came across Dease’s work in the theatre context, and immediately appreciated her sensitive and evocative soundscapes. It was her composition and sound design for dance theatre work Sunset (2019), however, that made me curious to learn more about her work.

Created by UK director and choreographer Maxine Doyle, in collaboration with Perth’s STRUT Dance and Tura New Music, Sunset immerses audiences in a world of ghosts and memories. Dease’s rich and evocative score is fundamental to the sense of otherworldliness that pervades this work, from the minor key mournfulness of a live string quartet to the final plaintive duet sung by Dease alongside renowned performer Brendan Hanson. As I noted in my review at the time, the Sunset score could be released as an album in its own right.

It’s even more impressive when I learn that Dease had recently given birth when she performed in the work, and was recovering from a caesarean delivery. Looking back on that time more than a year later, Dease recalls, “I think I felt like I could do anything … I was totally naïve.” Dease’s partner (graphic designer and musician Joe Kapiteyn) would sit in the car with baby Duke while she rehearsed and performed. “I remember asking Joe to park [as far away as possible] because I knew that if I heard Duke cry I would walk out. I consider myself a consummate professional but I knew I would bolt.”

It is totally do-able to have mothers in the industry, but everyone just needs to change what they’re doing a little bit.

Managing the commitment as a new mum was made easier by STRUT Dance, Tura New Music and Conor Doyle (Maxine Doyle’s second-in-charge), Dease continues. “Conor did so much when it came to playing things for the rehearsals, so I didn’t have to be there as much as I would have been. It is totally do-able to have mothers in the industry, but everyone just needs to change what they’re doing a little bit.”

Like so many musicians, Dease’s plans for 2020 have been radically altered by the COVID-19 restrictions. When Perth went into lockdown she had just begun a year-long Prelude Composer Residency at Gallop House, in Dalkeith. She was one of four recipients of this prestigious annual award, funded by the Bundanon Trust to give composers time and space to make new work.

“[When we went into lockdown] Duke had just started daycare,” she remembers. “He had one great week, with really beautiful teachers and he was loving it. And then a week after, we had to pull him out of daycare … it felt like I’d waited two years to get myself back. And with this residency I had all these high hopes of being able to write X amount a day, and I was so excited. So I kind of just lost it, actually … because it was that anticipation that kind of fell in a heap. But I think you do have to have a bit of a meltdown and then you pick yourself up.”

And so Dease began working on a new album of songs, Hymns for End Times. While the name sounds perfect for the pandemic, the songs that comprise the project emerged from another global emergency.

“I started singing [these songs] when we were talking about the climate crisis – which is still happening – and then the Australian bush fires happened. It felt like the world was falling apart. And I just kept thinking … I don’t think we, as humans, belong on this planet anymore. Little did I know what was about to happen…

A lot of the songs … I don’t want them to necessarily be depressing … They’re just a series of kind of gutteral emotions really, which I have tried to shape into intelligible vignettes

“But these feelings were completely juxtaposed with being a new mum to a baby. I was nursing and I had this new life around me all the time and I felt so sad about … the future really. But a lot of the songs, even though they are heavy, I don’t want them to necessarily be depressing. I want people to take what they want out of them. They’re just a series of kind of gutteral emotions really, which I have tried to shape into intelligible vignettes.”

Listening to a selection of tracks from the album, as I take my evening walk, what I notice most is that I can feel myself slowing down, mentally and emotionally, my thoughts tuning themselves to the sweep of Dease’s vocals, getting lost in the lush string and percussion blends. And though they weren’t made for pandemic times, they feel just right for what I feel right now as I, along with the rest of human race, adjust my ambitions for the present and the future to a new pace. I report as much to Dease.

“That’s good,” she responds. “Often I will pop the tracks on my phone and then go for a walk, like you did, and that’s how I process them too. And, a lot of them are at walking pace, I’ve found. And I think they do they do belong in this moment.

“But they’re really full of love as well. They’re about love of humans, and love of the future … it’s an outpouring of love and concern and anxiety and sadness and celebration.”

Hymns for End Times will be released in late 2020. In the meantime you can preview excerpts of the album on Rachael Dease’s website.

Rachael Dease is performing with longtime collaborator Tristen Parr at Fremantle Arts Centre Thursday 28 August 2020 – this show has sold out, so keep your eye out for future performances!

Pictured top is Rachael Dease. Photo: Joe Kapiteyn

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked for over a decade as an arts writer and critic. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. Since July 2016 Nina has also been co-editor of Dance Australia magazine. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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